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Creating the engineers of tomorrow — Underwater robotics introduced to Central Kitsap elementary students

Silver Ridge Elementary School students, Jessica Gosselin and Meghan Duarte, test out their team’s ROV last Thursday. While robotics programs have been ongoing at the secondary level, this was the first year elementary students participated in the program. - Kristin Okinaka
Silver Ridge Elementary School students, Jessica Gosselin and Meghan Duarte, test out their team’s ROV last Thursday. While robotics programs have been ongoing at the secondary level, this was the first year elementary students participated in the program.
— image credit: Kristin Okinaka

Not often do elementary school students design their own remotely operated vehicle and test it in the waters as if navigating the robot in the Navy on a mine-clearing mission.

Students at Silver Ridge Elementary School in the Central Kitsap School District did just that.

Fifth and 6th graders at Silver Ridge are the first of elementary students to participate in a robotics program as an extension to the regular science curriculum. The program is in partnership with Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Last Thursday, students tested their ROVs in the school district pool as a culmination of the project.

“We’re taking it through a mission to pick up things,” said 5th grader Meghan Duarte, who compared the task to how the military may find a bomb using an ROV. “It’s really cool.”

Robotics programs have been established for junior high and high school students in the district, both in underwater and land vehicles, where they design and build — and sometimes even compete.

Central Kitsap High School students participated in a robotics regional competition in Seattle last week, which revolved around building a robot that would shoot a basketball into hoops.

Wanting to introduce robotics to younger students, teachers hope an interest in math and science will stem from it.

Catherine Townsend’s multilevel classroom of Silver Ridge 5th and 6th graders started the underwater robotics project about two months ago and built their ROVs in about three weeks. Townsend said she hopes the pilot program will continue next year with more elementary schools.

“Hopefully we’ll develop Naval engineers of the future,” she said.

Townsend said her students had control of the project and prior to testing their ROVs in the pool, they tested them in a horse trough outside their school building. They did nearly everything short of cutting the PVC pipes that the ROVs were made of.

“We get to build it out of our design and see how it works,” said 6th grader Caleb Shaw.

Some students overcame zip-ties that wouldn’t stay tied onto their ROVs or merely getting used to the control panel to navigate the vehicle to move in a specific direction.

For 6th grader Chase Hampton, navigating the ROV wasn’t difficult – the control system is similar to the Xbox games he plays. Chase enjoys building things and hopes to become a mechanical engineer. He said the underwater robotics program was a fun component to the class.

The project allowed her students to go through the entire scientific process, Townsend said. She added that the science unit of study had been “variables,” which played into the underwater robotics project as well.

“It’s like one of those hands on science projects that you don’t get a whole lot of in this grade level,” Chase said.

Corinne Beach, the shipyard’s STEM outreach coordinator, said the underwater vehicles program is in a total of 18 area schools with 1,800 students. The STEM outreach includes about 2,000 students, she added. The programs are supported by the shipyard and Naval Base Keyport. Last year, the material costs for all STEM outreach were covered by a $30,000 Navy Defense grant, Beach said.

“If you give them a hands on application, it may spur them to think it’s fun and see the application for it,” Beach said.

And, starting with younger students can just plant the seed earlier.

“I’ve always wondered how remote control things were built and now we get to,” Meghan said.

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